CBS-60 Minutes II-Covers the Gene-Food Debate

CBS-60 Minutes II-Covers the Gene-Food Debate

CBS News
60 Minutes II
August 8, 2001

What have they done to our food?; genetically engineered foods in our
grocery stores and the related controversies

Interviwer: SCOTT PELLEY


How much of the food at the grocery store do you imagine is the product of
gene splicing in a laboratory? It may surprise you that up to 70 percent of
the processed food in your market contains products of genetic engineering.
That includes soft drinks, ketchup, ice cream, corn flakes, just to name a
few. Genes, of course, are the building blocks of DNA, the blueprint of
life. You have the same DNA as a redwood tree; the difference is in the
genes. Each gene expresses a trait--say, tallness in the redwood or brown
eyes in a child. Six years ago, science began plucking individual genes and
splicing them into our food crops. Now Americans are beginning to ask: What
is genetic engineering? Is it healthy? In short, what have they done to our
food? As we did when we first reported our story earlier this year, we start
with a fish story.
(Footage of salmon farm)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) These salmon are going to make history. They're due to
be the first genetically engineered animal approved to eat. They're the
invention of a company run by Elliot Entis.
You know, to my mind, salmon seems OK. Why did you engineer a new one?

Mr. ELLIOT ENTIS (Genetic Engineer): Well, it's not that the existing salmon
aren't OK. They are. The problem is that we have to feed ever-increasing
numbers of people in the world today.
(Footage of salmon farming; a salmon being weighed)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Entis grew up in Boston knowing one thing: He would
never go into the fish business like his father. But then, he'd never met a
fish like this. Watch what happens when the scales hit the scales.
Unidentified Man: 2.54.

PELLEY: (Voiceover) That's a normal salmon, about one year old. This is a
bioengineered salmon, also one year old, and more than three times larger.
Unidentified Man: 9.14.

Mr. ENTIS: They grow faster. They get to their full adult size in roughly
half the time that they otherwise would.
(Footage of the salmon side by side; a salmon tank)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Again, this is a normal fish, and this is Entis' fish.
His supersalmon were created by splicing in genetic material from two other
fish, an ocean pout and a Pacific salmon. Entis says the result is a salmon
just like any other, except for its remarkable ability to grow. In the
beginning, they expected to increase the growth rate 25 percent. They got
400 percent. Entis says it's a miracle of science. With the genes of two
fishes, he can feed a multitude.
You know what your critics say. They say you're messing around in the
genome, and you couldn't possibly predict what all of the outcomes are going
to be.

Mr. ENTIS: Well, let me agree with some of my critics. We are indeed messing
with a genome. This is an old human tradition first started 10,000 years ago
when we first began to cross-pollinate crops and to breed mutant monsters
such as wheat, which is a hybrid of three separate grass species.

PELLEY: When you crossbreed, you're changing the genome gradually over time.
But when you do it in the laboratory, you're creating a new organism like

Mr. ENTIS: I can't argue against the fact that modern methods of
biotechnology are more powerful. I mean, we can do things with modern
methods of biotech that could not easily be done--or perhaps not even at
all--through standard crossbreeding. But that's the advantage. That's what
we have to look at--what is the product, and not the process.

Mr. ANDREW KIMBRELL (Center for Food Safety): Genetically engineered food is
really a revolution. Whether you love it or hate it, it's--it's a revolution
in--in food.
(Footage of Kimbrell)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Andrew Kimbrell is a lawyer who runs a consumer advocate
group called the Center for Food Safety. He says consumers have no idea how
much science is changing our food.
Mr. KIMBRELL: You're taking a gene from a foreign species. Let's--taking
flounder gene, for example, and putting it into a tomato. This has actually

PELLEY: They've taken a flounder gene and put it in a tomato?

Mr. KIMBRELL: Right, because they want the tomato to grow at lower
temperatures, and they also want to be able to store it in freezing for a
much longer time than they currently can do.

PELLEY: And a fish gene helps a tomato do that?

Mr. KIMBRELL: That's right.
(Footage of government report)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) It's all in this US Department of Agriculture permit,
which OK'd the experimental gene based on one identified in the winter
flounder. The idea was that the gene that keeps flounders from freezing in
cold water could also keep the tomato fresh in freezing weather. The
tomatoes were grown but never sold. Still, Kimbrell says it shows that food
is changing in ways that we do not expect.

Mr. KIMBRELL: We're able to, though this technology, mix and match the
genetic code of the entire living kingdom at will. We've never had this
power before.
(Footage of a laboratory site)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Nowhere is that power being put to more use than this
laboratory outside St. Louis. Those are greenhouses on the roof sheltering
plants the likes of which the world has never seen.
In a given year in this building, how many new plants do you engineer?

Mr. ERIC SACHS (Monsanto): My estimate would be tens of thousands of plants
produced each year.

PELLEY: Look, this one says wheat transformation.

Mr. SACHS: That's right.
(Footage of Pelley and Sachs in the plant; various operations there)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Eric Sachs is a scientist at Monsanto. After 100 years
of making chemicals, Monsanto is now betting its future on biotech. The
company is devoting all of its research to inventing new plants. They have
perfected a family of crops that contain a natural pesticide. Monsanto
plucked a gene from a type of bacteria, a gene that happens to be lethal to
bugs. They spliced that gene into corn, potatoes and cotton. This cotton,
for example, was exposed to boll worms. The worms are feasting on a normal
plant, but Monsanto's bioengineered cotton is clean.
This is strictly the result, you're telling me, of the genetic engineering?
(Footage of Pelley and Sachs in greenhouse)
PELLEY: (Voiceover) When the bugs bite, they're finished.

Mr. SACHS: The pests basically have--have died.

PELLEY: Because the plant killed them.
(Footage of farmland)
PELLEY: (Voiceover) Bioengineered plants have been on the market for six
years. The bug-killing corn and potatoes are in products you probably buy
and eat every week. In fact, the bioengineered corn now makes up 25 percent
of the nation's corn harvest. If you think you don't want a bacteria gene in
your corn, Monsanto's Scottish chief operating officer, Hugh Grant, says
think of the benefits.

Mr. HUGH GRANT (COO, Monsanto): There's millions of gallons of insecticide
that hasn't been used since these crops were launched. There--today there
are hundreds of millions of acres of these crops grown not just here in the
US but increasingly around the world.
(Footage of Monsanto lab)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) At Monsanto, new plants are created here with a very
simple trick.

Mr. SACHS: We can actually start...

PELLEY: (Voiceover) They use a chemical to clip out the gene they want to
transfer. Then that new gene is carried into the plant's DNA by a type of
bacteria that have a natural habit of invading plant cells with genetic
And how long does that take for the bacterium to change the cotton plant?
Mr. SACHS: We allow this to incubate about a day.

PELLEY: Do we understand what we're doing when we're mucking about with the
DNA and moving genes from one plant into another? Do we really know what
we're doing with a certainty?
Mr. GRANT: There is a very high degree of certainty in this area. It's very,
very specific. And the fascinating thing is, as the technology has
developed, particularly in the last 10 to 20 years, the degree of certainty
increases tremendously as well.
(Footage of various demonstrations; Arpad Pusztai)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) But there is much less certainty overseas.
Unidentified Reporter: There have already been several arrests for criminal

PELLEY: (Voiceover) In Europe, biotech food is protested in the fields and
in the streets. Many grocery stores and restaurants refuse to sell it. In
Japan, protesters are up in arms over whether biotech corn pollen is
poisonous to butterflies, something that our EPA calls a minimal concern.
All of this is a tempest in a test tube that you can trace, in part, to a
70-year-old Hungarian biochemist with a fondness for bow ties.

Mr. ARPAD PUSZTAI (Biochemist): Thank you very much, very kind.

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Arpad Pusztai is a respected scientist and a blight on
the flowering ambition of the biotech industry.
Based on the research that you have done, do you think genetically modified
foods have moved into the marketplace much too quickly?

Mr. PUSZTAI: Far, far too quickly.
(To lecture audience) ...doing the experiment...
(Footage of lecture hall)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Pusztai is still lecturing audiences about his
three-year study funded by the British government. His experiment fed rats
both normal potatoes and bioengineered potatoes.
You didn't expect to see any difference...
Mr. PUSZTAI: No. None whatsoever.

PELLEY: ...between the regular potatoes and the genetically modified

Mr. PUSZTAI: None whatsoever.

PELLEY: You were surprised.

Mr. PUSZTAI: Oh, sha--absolutely shattered.
(To lecture audience) Now you can see it...
(Footage of lecture hall; an issue of The Lancet)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Pusztai says the rats that ate the genetically
engineered potatoes suffered unusual thickening of the lining of the stomach
and intestine, and a weakening of the immune system. Part of his work was
published by a respected medical journal, The Lancet. But some scientists
have criticized Pusztai's methods and other studies have found that
bioengineered food is safe.
Doctor, dozens and dozens of genetically modified products are on grocery
store shelves in the United States.


PELLEY: Virtually everyone in this country is eating some genetically
modified food.

Mr. PUSZTAI: Well, I think that--that we don't know what--what are the
consequences of that, that the effect will be long-term effects. It's like
smoking. You smoke a cigarette, you don't drop dead; but you may develop
some real problem in 20, 30 years' time.
(Footage of Pelley and James Maryanski)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) James Maryanski is a biologist who oversees
biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that
polices food safety.

Mr. JAMES MARYANSKI (Biologist): We are convinced that--that the foods that
are out there are safe for consumers.

PELLEY: There are no long-term human health safety tests required for these
foods, correct?
Mr. MARYANSKI: That's correct.
PELLEY: Why is that?

Mr. MARYANSKI: Because these are foods that we're well familiar with. These
are crops--soy beans, corn, potatoes. We know a lot about those and have a
lot of experience with them.
(Footage of laboratory)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) In short, FDA generally considers gene-spliced plants to
be the same as the original.
But up until now, the 10,000 years of agriculture, nature has imposed rules.
You can't cross a tomato with a flounder in nature. Nature won't allow it.
And now we're breaking all of those rules.

Mr. MARYANSKI: They are putting pieces of DNA, which is the same in all
organisms, together, and it turns out that the genes function in the plant
the same as they functioned in the source that they were derived from.
(Footage of moonlight harvesting; grocery shoppers; laboratory works)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) If that sounds comforting, you should know that the
federal track record on biotech safety is less than perfect. Last fall, 300
corn products were pulled from supermarket shelves because they might have
been contaminated with a bioengineered corn not approved for humans to eat.
The EPA had OK'd the corn, trade name StarLink, for animal consumption.
There were worries that the genetic modification in the corn could cause
allergies in people. But America's vast agriculture system couldn't keep
StarLink separate. It was mixed in with most everything else. Six months
later, grain processors, including Archer Daniels Midland, are still testing
for StarLink to reassure consumers that American corn is safe.
Unidentified Tester: Pass.
(Footage of Pelley and Kimbrell)
PELLEY: (Voiceover) Consumer advocate Andrew Kimbrell says StarLink is a
warning that federal food safety law hasn't caught up with biotech.

Mr. KIMBRELL: Right now, we've got eight different agencies regulating
biotechnology under 12 different laws, none of them having been passed with
biotechnology in mind. These are laws that are 30 years old, 40 years old,
50 years old, when biotechnology wasn't even invented yet. It's a tremendous
regulatory tangle, and it's really not in the best interests of
the--of--of--of the consumer, not even of the industry, I think.
(Footage of grocery shoppers)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) Kimbrell says what is in the interest of the consumer is
mandatory labeling of bioengineered products, just like that required in
many European countries.
You know, I think a lot of people watching this interview would ask
themselves, 'If they're not putting labels on these products, they must be
hiding something. What is it that they don't want me to know?'

Mr. MARYANSKI: Labeling is a very difficult issue. And under the--the
current law, we don't have authority that's broad to require labeling simply
because consumers would like to have the information.
(Footage of grocery shopping; robot working in laboratory)

PELLEY: (Voiceover) There may be no plans to label, but there will be more
genetically engineered food in your future. This robot in Monsanto's lab is
testing candidates for genetic modification. The interesting thing is it
tests 500 a day. In a few years, perhaps dozens of genes could be spliced
into a plant to add vitamins, make healthier oils and increase the harvest,
according to Monsanto's Hugh Grant.

Mr. GRANT: The world that our children will live in is going to be a very
different world to the world that we live in today. The population will
probably double, and most people agree on that. The change that will
occur--or the big question that emerges is: How do you feed twice as many

PELLEY: Just because we can...

Mr. ENTIS: Doesn't mean we should. It's true.

PELLEY: Where are the limits for you?

Mr. ENTIS: Well, I have to say that some of the limits for me are driven by
what I believe is acceptable as well as by what is good. Is there an ethical
question that's involved with moving a gene from a flounder to a tomato? No,
I don't believe that there is an ethical one because, as I pointed out, most
of our genes are shared between all organisms.

PELLEY: (Voiceover) The FDA is now reviewing Elliot Entis' supersalmon.
Approval is expected in two years, when Entis believes that shoppers will
accept them.

Mr. ENTIS: I take a look at what happens in the grocery stores and I don't
see the stampede away from genetically modified foods. That has not

PELLEY: How would they know?

Mr. ENTIS: But people do have a general understanding that, in fact, much of
their food is genetically modified. And you know something? Chicken Little
has got all these warnings about the sky falling because of genetic
modification, but folks, I got to tell you, it's been 10 years, the sky
hasn't fallen.

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